Trust in the social services: Can recording meetings build better relationships?

Written by James Foley on 29 July 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

High-profile social care reviews have highlighted the need for comprehensive record-keeping. James Foley, vice-president for customer experience at BT smartnumbers, asks whether the electronic recording of meetings could improve trust between clients and social workers.

Could new record-keeping technologies help improve trust and reduce the number of inaccurate records in social care? - Photo credit: Flickr, Irish Typepad

Maintaining a consistently high quality of record keeping is difficult for any public organisation at the best of times.

Increasing level of client engagement and increasing channels of communications, managed in an environment of reduced funding and changing legislation, is creating pressure and forcing change.

Although digitisation continues to have an impact across the wider public and judicial community – take paperless courtrooms at the Royal Courts of Justice, for example – things are different at the coalface of the social service.


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Social service providers in the community continue to use time-consuming, often inaccurate, manual methods for recording their meetings with service users.

But it’s in social work that the role of recording interactions is most crucial.  Cases often involve children and vulnerable adults in highly sensitive scenarios where the intricacies of each case, and the detail within each conversation, can be crucial in court later on.

However it isn’t just about providing evidence for court – in fact the recording of meetings should ensure that fewer cases come to court.

With the recording and automatic transcription of important meetings, the service provider can put down their note-pad and instead engage with the client – knowing that they will receive a full transcript of the conversation once it has finished.

Furthermore, it is far easier for a social worker to request supervisory oversight of a conversation that has been recorded and transcribed – and much easier to provide a consistent history of engagement across social workers too.

Allaying fears

From the social worker’s point of view, there has been increased pressure on them to be circumspect in recent years.

The 2014 Care Bill’s implementation of devolved community care has improved interaction and relationships between clients and their care providers but, arguably, social workers have never been more exposed.

And never has it been more important to keep accurate records of their meetings. This is necessary to not only protect the interest of the care receiver but also to demonstrate vigilance on the part of the social worker.

Vulnerable groups don’t always feel their interests are being protected, so they’ve started to take matters into their own hands - clients’ parents and families are increasingly recording their conversations or meetings with social services both for their own peace of mind and also to produce evidence should they believe they are not receiving the right levels of care.

It’s this atmosphere of mistrust that is driving the service user to protect their interests and so, arguably, service providers could proactively record such meetings in order to demonstrate confidence in the quality of care and to allay fears.

Councils lack policies

So what’s the view of the UK’s local councils on the recording of meetings with social workers?

The Transparency Project is an independent, non-profit organisation set up to promote transparency in social services, and help families make best use of the Family Court system.

Interested in the role of recording meetings in protecting the interests of families, it decided to make Freedom of Information requests to each local authority in England and Wales, asking if they had any policy in respect of parents’ recording meetings with social workers, or any plans to develop one.  

They received 166 results, which showed mixed views. Many councils reported they had no current policy, while others reported that they had policies that were too generic and didn’t take into account the needs of the family.

In such situations, there is a risk that, should the council discover parents recording conversations – covert or otherwise – the response could be disproportionate.

Proper policies are needed to avoid future doubt, and build trust, the project concluded. Bulletproof policies would also avoid the misappropriation of information leading to breaches in confidentiality.

Sarah Phillimore at the Transparency Project told BT Smartnumbers: “It is easier and easier for a parent to record conversations, and it’s easy to see why they might want to do it.”

She added: “Social workers should never say or write anything that they wouldn’t be happy hearing in court and so, for good social workers, this should be welcome.

“It is awkward, it feels uncomfortable, but if you put yourself in the parents shoes for a moment, that must be how they feel all of the time. If it levels the playing field a little, that may be a good thing.”

Choosing a technology

The options now facing councils is to risk finding themselves in the position of having to defend their care provision in light of recordings made by families, or they can go on the front foot and start to proactively offer recordings of social care meetings when required.

Not only will this proactive approach provide the benefit of transparency to the families, it will also provide protection for the social worker, who can often feel exposed and with little support on the front line of care.

In terms of technology, it’s important to consider a solution that can both record and transcribe these conversations so full notes of the meetings can be stored or shared across the social services team.

The technology challenge is not to record conversations, but instead to provide a recording service that will record, store, transcribe and alert the social services team and management to conversations taking place across all aspects of social care.

That will allow a comprehensive and accurate history of care provision to be created, and ensures that as social workers move on to other cases, critical information or notes are maintained.

It also means that social workers can engage more in the conversation with the service-user rather than in detailed note taking which can often get in the way of the conversation itself.

With increasing pressures in mind - and a desire to make interactions more productive and trustful - recording, transcription and archiving of meetings could remove unnecessary barriers between communities and their social workers, and better protect them for the long term.

About the author

James Foley is vice-president for customer experience at BT smartnumbers.

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